Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life
Aihwa Ong is Robert H. Lowie Distinguished Chair in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, the author of Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty and Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, and the coeditor of Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate, all also published by Duke University Press.
Epilogue: A DNA Bridge and an Octopus’s Garden
The epilogue returns to the ethical quandaries of a technology that, by seeking a pluripotent fate, may indeed open us up to a multitude of “unknown unknowns.” The author contrasts the two Asian models of biomedical entrepreneurialism. Biopolis deploys the ethnic heuristic to shape a transborder biomedical zone and act as a “DNA bridge” to American cosmopolitan science. The author argues that Singaporean humanists, social scientists and philosophers need to start a public conversation about the wide-ranging implications of experiments with life in their midst. What are the benefits and uncertainties of sequencing DNA and perturbing cells as lifesaving therapies in Asia? How can the public be party to discussions on ethical limits to such experiments? Like any of the best-conceived biopolitical plans—to improve health and wealth—the innovative ethno-genomic experiments in Singapore can go awry. The experimental situation in China excites even more anxieties. After all, BGI is an octopus-like global biotech enterprise that also has a domestic agenda of preparing for anticipating China’s national health challenges. Western fears that science in China is a mass assembly production are countered by Chinese scientists' claim of “socialist pragmatism.” But new projects such as engineering “genius babies” and experimenting with gene editing on admittedly defective genes draw worries that poor ethical regulations in China give scientists there an edge over high-stakes research in the West. These two modalities of Asian biomedical entrepreneurialism both particularize and universalize the life sciences as we know it. The pursuit of fortune, fungibility, and hope in bioscience, I conclude, must confront fear and the finitude of life itself.